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NY Consul General Of German Visits RHJ Center

Special Address

Pictured are Consul General of Germany David Gill and Robert H. Jackson Center Executive Director Kristan McMahon during a press conference before Gill’s address to various community members and government officials. P-J photos by Katrina Fuller

David Gill, the Consul General of Germany in New York, visited the Robert H. Jackson Center to provide a special address to members of the community and government officials on Wednesday night.

Before his address, Gill took questions from the press along with center co-founder Greg Peterson and executive director Kristan McMahon. Questions ranged from what it was like to grow up in East Germany during the Cold War to if the division in America concerned him after what happened in Germany during World War II.

He first addressed the reason why he wanted to visit the Jackson Center.

“I wanted to see how hard the Jackson Center is working and what incredible work they are doing in remembering Robert H. Jackson,” Gill said. “Before I came here, I read a little more about him — he’s such a fascinating person. He was very decisive for my country as well — I don’t have to tell you what Robert H. Jackson did, but, of course, the Nuremberg trials, particularly the military tribunals, were very decisive in how Germany came to terms with the Nazi era. It didn’t change everything at the moment; of course, Germans had to really cope with the Nazi era. In some ways, it took until the late ’60s and the young people pressured the older ones to look deeper into history.”

Gill said the work the Jackson Center has done to teach younger generations about what happened during World War II and during the Nuremberg Trials is incredibly valuable. He said current students in Germany learn quite a bit about the Holocaust and World War II; however, that was not the case when he grew up in East Germany during the Cold War. He said the focus during that time was how heroic the Soviets were during World War II.

Pictured are Consul General of Germany David Gill and Robert H. Jackson Center Executive Director Kristan McMahon during a press conference before Gill’s address to various community members and government officials. P-J photos by Katrina Fuller

“The Holocaust didn’t appear in my history classes,” he said.

Gill said in present day Germany, every German student learns about the history of the Holocaust and many visit concentration camps to see for themselves the devastation that the Nazi regime wrought.

He said we should always be concerned that the past can be forgotten, however, that is not a chief concern he has at this moment with Germany. He said Germans pass down what has happened in history and what happened in Germany “in the name of Germany.”

“We always have to make sure that we remember,” Gill said. “It’s a little bit in the DNA of the Germans now, I would say. As I said, it was not always like this — it needed the movement of the late 60s and the young people who went on the streets and wanted to know what happened.”

He said there remains work to be done, but many memorial sites have been erected in Germany and elsewhere to make sure the Holocaust is remembered.

“When you walk through bigger cities, you see the little stumbling stones of brass – names are engraved of people who lived in the building (naming who) was killed by the Nazis,” he said. “It is visible, and that’s important. That’s also (why it’s) so important that you do your work here at the Jackson Center.”

Gill said the reason why the Nuremberg Trials were so important and so impactful after World War II was because they focused on the rule and order of law. The trials were not an “act of revenge” or “an act showing the power of the victors of the war,” he said.

“They used the rule of law, legal means, to (bring) reckoning,” Gill explained. “This is what was happening — we have to obey the law, and the law is ruling our days. That was abandoned (in Germany) for more than 12 years. We have to remember that Nazis, for instance, started very, very early in 1933 to kick out the Jewish judges, lawyers and attorneys way before Kristallnacht, way before other things. They started the demolishing of the judicial system, and that is why it was so important that they immediately reinvented a judicial system which dealt with the unthinkable crimes that happened during the 12 years of the Nazi (regime).”

Gill briefly discussed what it was like to grow up in East Germany as part of the Soviet Union. He said it was something that “shaped” him as he was growing up. For example, he said he never would have become a diplomat or a lawyer had the Soviets remained in power going forward.

“I would have become a Protestant minister because my father was a Protestant minister – in East Germany, that already decided where you belonged to,” he said. “We didn’t belong to the elite of the communist regime. We were in some ways ousted and I wasn’t even allowed to go to higher education. When you were active in the church and religious organizations, it was clear you wouldn’t have a career in East Germany. I was 23 when the wall came down, and it also shaped my very positive view on the rule of law, democracy, how important parliament is and how important the division of powers is, etc., because I experienced how it was the other way around.”

As the child of a minister, Gill said he was afforded a certain level of freedom that other people in East Germany were not. Since they were not part of the “communist system,” they were able to speak a bit more openly in their churches than in other areas, which Gill said was “unusual” elsewhere. This proved to be helpful to those who wished to oppose the communist regime as the church acted as a sanctuary at that time.

“They all gathered within the church because the church provided a kind of safe haven,” he said. “They couldn’t prevent them from being attacked by the Stasi maybe, but they could provide a room of a certain freedom and that is what I experienced in East Germany. Therefore, it’s not by chance that most of the sizable figures in the peaceful revolution in ’89 came from the churches. Many big figures in this movement and the new parties were ministers or at least lay people in the church.”

When asked about the current divided climate in America, Gill said it concerns him.

“I think it is such a great country, a great historic country which taught us democracy,” he said. “By the way, my wife is American, my two girls are German-Americans. There’s a personal, personal issue in there. I think democracy works best when people talk to each other, and I hope that politicians in this country can find a way somehow to talk to each other.”

He said it is not advisable to speak of people in other parties as “the enemy.” Rather, he said politicians should always refer to others as “opponents.”

“Yes, we have opposite convictions maybe, but we can deal with this,” he said. “What you saw over the last decades here there is divisions into two parts which not only do you see in politics but also in the country which bothers me sometimes. I don’t know the way out of it.”

Gill said Germany has been successful in forging working relationships between parties that used to be opposed to one another. The coalition was “an awakening,” he said.

“People who spoke to each other but always understood that the other is the opponent suddenly became partners and many of them close friends,” he said. “I think that’s very important for a democracy is that you speak to each other and you find out how to … make the best for the country.”

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